A CHILD AT school today will likely end up working in an industry that doesn’t currently exist or using technology and skills that have not yet been developed.
Such a statement may sound alarmist and raise all sorts of questions about our capacity as an economy and society to prepare our learners for this turbulent future.
The quality of our education system is vital to our growth and development as an economy and society.
The recent debate on the use of technology by our children and young people is a clear indication of the extent to which technology has come to dominate almost every second of our daily lives.
I may not be a digital native, but I do recall playing computer games on the Commodore Vic20 back in the early 1980s – as well as being reared on a solid musical diet of Chris de Burgh and Billy Joel.
Like the underlying technology in that Commodore machine, both musicians are still with us – but in ways that we would hardly recognise if we contrast them with their alter egos from the past.
So why is the head of the statutory professional standards body for teachers in Ireland, charged with promoting and regulating the profession, wandering back and forth across his childhood memories and the present?
For me, this illustrates how we should be embracing our future, with all its uncertainties and risks, with confidence – for we know a bit more about it than we think, and we have proven ourselves more than capable of learning to overcome similar challenges in the past.
We know that the potential of any child to develop and grow is directly linked to the education they receive. And like my own childhood musical diet, it is also heavily influenced by the love and support we receive at home – and how both school and home experiences link with and support each other.
To put it more simply, if Ireland Inc is going to grow and prosper and provide the opportunities to our children to achieve their full potential, we all need to ensure that we collaborate with each other to ensure that the education they receive continues to be of the highest quality.
The recent National Skills Strategy touched on this point when it said: “We need to create an environment where ideas flourish not to produce drones with skills … Our graduates must have a strong emphasis on creativity and flexibility, ideas and thinking outside the box.”
Creativity, flexibility, thinking out of the box – pretty exciting language and absolutely correct if we are going to embrace and shape a future that is inherently unpredictable.
And if this is our ambition then it highlights the awesome responsibility which the people at the core of our system carry – teachers.
The challenge, therefore, appears to be one of striking a balance between knowledge and the development of specific skills on the one hand, and the courage and confidence to innovate and create on the other.
Given the central role of the education system in striking this balance, where stands the teaching profession?
In a report on teacher supply published in June 2017, the Teaching Council cited data from the Department of Education and Skills which forecasts that the numbers of students attending post-primary schools will continue to grow until they peak in 2025.
Recent media reports have indicated that we are already facing shortages of qualified teachers in certain subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects, Home Economics, European languages and Irish.
So if we are to ensure that a future talent pool will be multilingual as well as innovative and creative, and given the demographic trends, it appears that we will need both more teachers, and more teachers with particular subjects, for the foreseeable future.
The solutions which are being considered are targeted at two broad aims.
Firstly, we need to chart clearer pathways to attractive and sustainable careers for those who wish to become teachers.
This includes matters such as a single online portal to apply for teaching posts, resolution of outstanding pay issues, employment of teachers across a number of school sectors and a comprehensive communications campaign to promote the profession.
Secondly, we need a more targeted approach by all colleges and universities who educate our teachers to meet the identified needs of our education system, including the needs of our learners.
This will at a minimum require a clearer focus on subject areas of particular shortage at post-primary, including Home Economics and STEM subjects.
We also believe that the expansion of undergraduate or concurrent programmes of teacher education – where subjects and education are studied in the one qualification over four years – would help in the area of supply in the medium-term.
They would be shorter and cheaper routes for student teachers,and would still meet the same standards set down by the Teaching Council.
Mindful of the benefits which life experience can bring to bear on any profession, we anticipate that there will always be a need for a post-graduate route into teaching.
In the short-term, however, given that schools cannot fill vacancies in certain subjects, there is a glaring need for top-up programmes for teachers who are already qualified and who wish to teach related or new subjects.
The opportunities for our children tomorrow are not apparent today, but what is clear is that we will always need innovative and to realise our potential in all sectors. Creative teachers today will foster the creative innovators of tomorrow.
As far back as the 1960s, Patrick Hillery, then Minister for Education, said that Ireland was too poor not to invest in education. The core of this still remains true today.
This value which we place on education is important and by no means commonplace around the world. It is part of our long-term competitive edge over other nations and we should fight hard to retain it.
Tomás Ó Ruairc is director of the Teaching Council.